Valencian Paella might not be what you expect. Perhaps when you hear or read the word paella you think of yellow rice, a wide shallow pan, and a bunch of seafood perched on top. This is similar to true Paella from Valencia but at the same time not exactly.
Paella is a dish that originated in the wetlands of the Albufera on the outskirts of Valencia. Authentic paella from this region is a reflection of the indigenous ingredients that can be found and traditional cooking methods used by farmers of the area. Let’s see how it’s done.
How To Make Traditional Valencian Paella
First, what is paella?
Paella is a Spanish rice dish that originated in the marshy estuary of the Tajo river, in an area known as La Albufera, outside of Valencia. This area is perfect for growing rice. People have been growing rice in this region since it was brought to the peninsula by Alexander the Great in the year 330 BC, after taking the crop from India.
Paella started out as a workers meal that would be prepared in the fields with rice and basically anything that they could get their hands on. From there the recipe has been perfected and fine-tuned, resulting in modern-day Paella.
What is Valencian Paella then?
The difference between Paella and Valencian Paella is similar to the difference between New York Style Pizza and Neopolitan Pizza. To make true Valencian Paella there is only a limited amount of ingredients that can be used. There is even a regulating government body that sets the guidelines for making traditional Valencian Paella.
There are ten basic ingredients that have to be used: chicken, rabbit, bajoqueta (Valencian green bean), garrofón (large Valencian lima bean) tomato rice, olive oil, water, saffron, and salt. That’s right, no seafood.
Other permitted ingredients are garlic, artichoke, duck, paprika, snails, and rosemary. Again, no seafood, unless you count the snails. These are all ingredients that can be found in the Albufera of Valencia, and what those first farmers who worked the fields would have used to make their rustic paellas. So by strict definition, these ingredients are what make a paella traditionally Valencian.
Then there is the matter of how to cook the paella. First off you will need a proper paella pan. In actuality, the pan in which you cook this dish is called a paella, the rice dish is named after the pan in which it is cooked. People mostly call the pan a Paellera or a Paella pan nowadays, but, if you want to get snooty about it, this is technically incorrect.
Your paella pan should be wide, shallow, and have two handles on either side. This shape will allow the rice to cook evenly and not stick together. The pan is also traditionally iron and black.
Now, this step will be almost impossible to complete for most, but it’s worth mentioning. Traditional paella is cooked outdoors, on an open fire. There is absolutely nothing wrong with cooking paella indoors or on a grill but this is the traditional method.
If you decide you want to cook your paella outdoors however and you want to go for the gusto, try to get your hands on orange (another common Valencian crop) tree wood, which is the kindling used in Valencia. Orange tree wood has a very particular smell and flavor, and the smoke gives the dish another dimension.
What rice should I use?
Rice is the main protagonist of the paella. In paella, the grains are cooked until they are loose. There isn’t a big difference in flavor between most rice varieties but you want a grain that maintains its structure absorbs flavors and aromas from of the ingredients. Overcooked rice (called empastrat in Valencian) loses its ability to retain flavors and aromas.
The rice in the paella should have two characteristics to take into account: the first is its ability to absorb water and the second is its resistance to bursting during cooking. Medium-sized rices are the most used in paellas (between five to six millimeters).
Most cooks use either Calasparra rice (originally from Murcia) or Bomba rice to make paella. If you can get your hands on Valencian rice with designation of origin even better. Bomba is the most commonly used variety of rice for Paella because it best maintains the two properties mentioned before, it absorbs water without turning mushy and does not break easily.
In Valencia, the rice is poured into the paella pan once the water is boiling. Rice is usually cooked initially with a bit of salt. Rice grains have very low sodium and it tends to absorb it from the “broth” by osmosis.
Most varieties can cook this way for 15 to 20 minutes. It is important to distribute the rice well as soon as it is added to the stew, because if it is stirred afterward it will break, releasing starch into the dish, causing the grain to explode (slatat in Valencian).
The proportion of water for cooking depends on the type of rice, but in most cases, it is usually between two and a half times (to three times) the volume of rice used. After the strong boil, the last 5 minutes are usually left off the fire.
Paella is a rice dish that originated in the epicenter of Spain’s most famous rice-growing region: Valencia, more specifically in the marshy estuary known as the Albufera. It was originally a humble workers dish that used a variety of ingredients that were readily available in the area: rice, chicken, rabbit, snails, etc. The use of this type of pan was both for its ability to cook rice evenly, but also because it was perfect for sharing among several people. Paella used to be cooked on an open fire in the fields.
Another very common crop in Valencia are oranges, and the wood from this tree is the traditional kindling used when cooking paella on an open fire. This wood, as you can imagine, has a very particular smell and smoke, which adds another layer of flavor to the Paella. The first gas paella maker was invented by chef Salvador Ten Montoliu (1897-1974), who patented the device in 1950.
Traditional Valencian Paella Recepie
Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 35 min
Yield: 4 servings
- 60 cl Extra virgin olive oil
- 500g Chicken
- 500g Rabbit
- 1 ripe tomato canned tomato peeled and milled
- 200g of green beans
- 200g kg of garrofón (lima bean)
- 1.5 liters water
- Sprig of fresh rosemary
- 500g Bomba rice
- Pre-boiled snails to taste
- Saffron (pinch)
- Salt (to taste)
- Heat up the paella, add the oil, and when it’s hot add the meat, cut into small pieces. Keep the heat medium/medium-low
- Sauté it over the heat until the meat is seared and golden.
- Add the tomato and vegetables (lima and green beans), maintaining the same heat.
- Once everything is well fried, add the stock, a sprig of rosemary, and heat everything up.
- As it begins to boil, add the rice, the snails, salt, and saffron and remove the rosemary. At this moment the fire needs to be on high.
- Let the rice cook for 10 minutes. Lower the heat gradually for at least another ten minutes.
- Once the paella is done and all the liquid has evaporated, let it sit for a couple of minutes to let it form the socarrat (light crust of rice on the bottom of the pan), and then it’s ready.If you are cooking outdoors the heat control will be more difficult so take this into account.